Resources on Young Adult Literature
Weisbard, Phyllis Holman, Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Joanne Brown & Nancy St. Clair, DECLARATIONS OF INDEPENDENCE: EMPOWERED GIRLS IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE, 1990-2001. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002. 194p. index. (Scarecrow studies in young adult literature, 7.) $37.50, ISBN 0810842904. (Reviewed by Nicole Grapentine-Benton.)
Michael Cart & Christine A. Jenkins, THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS: YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE WITH GAY/LESBIAN/QUEER CONTENT, 1969-2004. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 207p. (Scarecrow studies in young adult literature, 18.) index. $42.00, ISBN 978-0810850712.
Kenneth L. Donelson & Aileen Pace Nilsen, LITERATURE FOR TODAY'S YOUNG ADULTS, 7th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005. 478p. ill. $ 109.60, ISBN 978-0205410354.
Shelley Mosley & John Charles, THE SUFFRAGISTS IN LITERATURE FOR YOUTH: THE FIGHT FOR THE VOTE. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. (Literature for youth, 10). 323p. index. pap., $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8108-5372-0.
Carl M. Tomlinson & Carol Lynch-Brown, ESSENTIALS OF YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2007. 304p. $55.20, ISBN 978-0205290147.
Alice Trupe, THEMATIC GUIDE TO YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. 259p. index. $65.00, ISBN 0-313-33234-7.
In upcoming issues of Feminist Collections we are turning our attention to Girls' Studies in the academy as well as resources about, for, and in some cases by girls. Reference works are also a part of that corpus, and as a taste of what's to come, we look at several recent monographs and textbooks that can help librarians, teachers, and parents select books for young adult girls (and boys). "Young adult" books generally are aimed at twelve- to seventeen-year-olds, although some may be enjoyed by precocious younger readers and others were originally written for adults but feature teen-age protagonists and have become popular with that age group.
Librarians and teachers thrust into the role of selecting young adult (YA) literature will gain confidence in their selections if they first explore the history and intentions of the field. This can be accomplished by consulting textbooks used in education and library science courses on young adult literature. Both an old standby, Literature for Today's Young Adults, now in its seventh edition, and a new text from the same publisher, Essentials of Young Adult Literature, provide overviews of young adult literature, including criteria for evaluating them. Both cover the gamut of literary genres, from "realistic" contemporary fiction through poetry, humor, biographies, and science fiction. There are also some differences between the texts. Literature for ..., for example, includes a chapter on censorship, while Essentials has one on "multicultural and international literature." One can get introduced to the issues and themes of YA literature in either, however. My preference is for Literature for ..., because it is longer, includes more examples, goes into topics a bit deeper, and is more interesting on gender differences.
Both books express concern about getting boys interested in reading. Essentials has a three- paragraph section on "Boys Who Resist Reading" without a parallel "Girls Who Resist Reading." Literature for ... has a four-page section called "Questions About Gender and Literacy," which is also mostly about encouraging boys to read, although the authors conclude by cautioning that in the 1960s the focus was on boys, then in the 1980s on girls; and now, "[l]et's hope that this time we can get it right by focusing on the young people we work with as individuals" (p.45). Based on various cited studies, Essentials breaks down adolescent reading interests by gender, listing mysteries and scary stories/horror as having common appeal to boys and girls, but adventures, sports, science fiction and fantasy, and nonfiction on various subjects as more likely to interest boys. Additions to the girls' list are fewer: realistic stories and romances. Essentials goes on to list format preferences. Once again, girls have fewer distinctive preferences: "fiction, especially novels they can connect to, books that convey characters' feelings, newspapers and popular magazines"; while boys prefer "short texts or texts with shorter sections or chapters, also short stories; visual texts including ... comic books and graphic novels, books with cover illustrations, mostly of teenagers ..., books based on movies and television, [and] newspapers and popular magazines." Both males and females like "illustrations in books, adolescent protagonists of their own gender, characters the age of the reader or slightly older, fast paced stories, humorous stories, [and] familiar experiences about teen life" (pp.215-16). Literature for ... seems somewhat more doubtful about the distinction and is more inclined to think the difference in reading patterns--historically at least--was that "boys' books were generally far superior to girls' books ... Many authors insisted on making their girls good and domestic and dull (if a heroine were allowed some freedom to roam outside the house, she soon regretted it or grew up, which came first) ... Boys were allowed outside the house not only to find work and responsibilities, of course, but also to find adventure and excitement in their books" (p.61). In that discussion, the Literature for ... authors label the idea that girls would read boys' books, but not the other way around, as stereotyping reading habits. Later in the text they include an interesting sidebar on the subject, by YA author Karen Cushman: "I have been told that boys won't read my books because they are about girls. Teachers choose books about boys because girls will read them. And a number of women writers have taken to writing about boy heroes. But isn't this ignoring the issue? If books about girls who are interesting, active, clever, and curious aren't being read by boys, isn't that the problem? Aren't we teaching boys somehow to be alienated and offended by female protagonists? Should we writers all give up and just write about boys? Not me. Girls are why I got into this in the first place" (p.231). The Literature for ... authors also did their own survey of contemporary teen reading of magazines and comics, what video games they played, etc., and did find some gender differences, although fewer than readers might think.
After the overview, or if one is inclined to start with something more thematic and is looking primarily for discussion of novels, I suggest taking up Alice Trupe's Thematic Guide to Young Adult Literature. As with the textbooks above, there's no chapter headed "Gender," "Girls," or "Female Protagonists," yet some of the themes are quite germane, as are many of the books cited throughout. The Guide arranges the themes alphabetically, and the very first, "Abuse, Sexual Violence, and Healing," mainly discusses books in which girls have been the victims. "Pregnancy, Parenthood, Abortion" is another mostly with girls at the forefront, although The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson (2003), is about a single teen father. "Beauty's Meaning," "Breaking Silence, Speaking Out," "Dating's Challenges," and "Friends Forever" are examples of other sections that one can look to for books featuring girls and their issues.
Trupe intended her book to be an introduction to "the best fiction" for young adults, since there's very little criticism published about YA literature except for book reviews. Some of her "best," such as S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, discussed in the chapter on "Insiders and Outsiders," appeared in the 1960s, the early days of publishing for this age group, while others are recent, including Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going (2003), in the "Addressing Addiction" chapter; Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, by Joyce Carol Oates (2002), in "School Days"; Cruise Control, by Terry Trueman (2004), in "Disease and Disability"; and Saving the Planet & Stuff, by Gail Gauthier (2003), in "Older People's Impact on our Lives." The most recent date spotted is in the entry "The Alice Series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (1985-2006)," which gives the impression that the Alice series has ended. However, since Dangerously Alice came out in 2007, Trupe must just mean that she examined the series through 2006. Trupe also selected the more recent titles in the book with an eye to covering different variations on each theme addressed. Regardless of the theme to which Trupe assigned a particular book, she also states in her preface that she discusses each novel's form, characterization, point of view, and symbolism.
Three to eight novels are covered in each thematic chapter. This gives Trupe plenty of time to go into depth on the novel's plot and relationship to the theme. Most of the works are "problem novels," where the characters have to deal with personal and family crises and sometimes societal ills. If you haven't read any of these books, and you have some warm fuzzies about books you read as a teen, you are in for a shock. Take Margaret Mahy's The Other Side of Silence (1995), whose protagonist, Hero, is a voluntary mute, due to her "soap opera quality" home life. As if that weren't sufficient, the main plot of the book centers around Hero's encounters with an eccentric older woman who turns out to have locked up her daughter in a chamber, bolting her to a bed. Or try When She was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer (1997), in which an older sister physically and verbally abuses a younger one, the father is an alcoholic, the mother is dead, and the persecutor herself dies. These and many of the others in the Guide are powerful books by well-respected YA authors who know how to write about terrible situations. Their readers learn how the characters surmount their difficulties and grow. The Joyce Carol Oates title mentioned above also illustrates that there are authors of books for adults who also write for teens.
At the end of each chapter, Trupe lists additional reading recommendations, and in an appendix she offers additional themes and topics.
Another useful way to explore YA literature is to read relevant books in the Scarecrow Studies in Young Adult Literature series, edited by Patty Campbell. The series examines individual authors, including Norma Fox Mazer, cited above, and genres and issues in the literature. There are two recent titles in the series we think would be of special interest to Feminist Collections readers: Declarations of Independence: Empowered Girls in Young Adult Literature, 1990-2001 (#7 in the series), 2002; and The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004 (#18 in the series), 2006. Nicole Grapentine-Benton reviews the first; Phyllis Holman Weisbard, the second.
Declarations of Independence is a wonderful overview of books published in the last decade or so that feature "spunky, fiery, empowered girls" as protagonists (p. 181). The book is a fantastic resource for everyone, from professors of young adult literature to middle- and high-school teachers, to feminist moms and dads seeking positive role models for their daughters.
The term "empowered girl" is discussed at length, with the emphasis that, while all coming-of-age stories feature some measure of empowerment, not all female characters are empowered girls. The authors focus on protagonists with distinctly feminine characteristics and experiences, "girls whose empowerment has more to do with gaining confidence in themselves than gaining power over others" (p.27). They divide these protagonists into broad categories of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, literature of the fantastic, and memoir. Each chapter of a particular genre includes analysis of several books that demonstrate a particular aspect of empowerment, and concludes with a list of "Suggestions for Further Reading."
But Brown and St. Clair go beyond the simple compilation of good books for girls to read. They use their selections to create a broader assessment of the current status and reach of empowered girls in YA fiction. The first two chapters, titled "That Was Then" and "This Is Now," compare the genre as it stands today with where it was thirty and even a hundred years ago. The authors use the character of Jo March in Little Women as a benchmark by which to measure progress, and refer to her frequently throughout the book. In 1868, Jo was the feisty, ambitious writer who was forced to restrain herself so she would be "rewarded by the attentions of a good man who [chose] to 'have' her" (p. 10). They write, "Although female protagonists still struggle with their cultures' expectations, seldom does their struggle conclude with the protagonist passively or totally accepting a script she has had no part in writing" (p. 180).
The authors also explore how different genres lend themselves to different aspects of empowerment. They note that literature of the fantastic, for example, is distinct because it has a longer history than most other genres of YA fiction and can provide its female characters with more opportunities than are available to girls in this world. On the other hand, although opportunities may have been more limited in the past, many readers are more likely to accept feminist social commentary in historical fiction because it doesn't directly threaten the status quo. The book frequently refers to experts in feminism, literature, and girls' psychology to describe how certain themes relate to adolescent girls and why literature has such a profound impact on them.
Although Declarations of Independence is filled with strong, capable heroines who can inspire and motivate girls, most of the time those heroines don't seem to be having much fun. Brown and St. Clair write that empowered girls "are courageous, enthusiastic, and determined," but with all the constant struggles for acceptance and the hardships and prejudices to overcome, one does feel a little tired for these characters by the end. In my experience, the best way to get girls to read is to entertain them. If empowerment is largely doom and gloom, especially in the first crucial chapters, I wonder how much impact these important novels will really have on girls.
There are also some lingering questions as to the authors' categorization of both "empowered girls" and "young adult fiction." Of the first, one wonders, what about empowered girls who are boys (and vice versa)? Although there is lengthy discussion of the coming-out stories of bisexual and lesbian girls, no mention is made of transgender youth. There is a dangerous tendency as well to lump any novel with a young protagonist into YA fiction. In one case, the authors included Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower in their chapter on literature of the fantastic. While that novel is a powerful story about a young woman's struggle for survival, the graphic violence and other mature content hardly qualifies it as a story for young adults.
Overall, however, this book does an excellent job of telling the story of empowered girls in young adult fiction over time, and of mapping their presence across many genres of the recent literature. It is very well organized and easy to read, with smooth transitions between summary and critique. The authors deftly bring a wide variety of works together in their analysis to show a multifaceted, diverse genre that at the same time carries common themes that distinguish it from other YA literature. The pervading message of hope and progress in the portrayal of empowered girls is a welcome relief from the recent trend toward hyper-sexualized, body-image obsessed young adult series (such as the highly controversial Gossip Girls).
A collaboration between a library science professor and an author who formerly headed the Beverly Hills Public Library, The Heart Has Its Reasons charts the growth in young adult novels with gay content, from its slow beginnings with John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) and output of about one title per year in the 1970s to some twelve books per year since 2000. Like Trupe, Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins also comment on the meager amount of critical analysis of YA literature on their theme. Their book redresses this dearth considerably. Their chronological approach also fits an evolutionary model Jenkins developed, which was influenced by Rudine Sims Bishop's schema for representations of African Americans in children's books. Sims Bishop's model saw movement in books' emphases from social conscience ("race was the problem and desegregation the solution") to melting pot ("racial diversity was present but unacknowledged, and integration was a given") to culturally conscious portrayals ("African Americans were portrayed in a culturally accurate manner") (p.xix). Jenkins' three categories are homosexual visibility (books in which "a character who has not previously been considered gay/lesbian comes out either voluntarily or involuntarily"), gay assimilation ("assumes the existence--at least in the world of the story--of a 'melting pot' of sexual and gender identity. These stories include people who 'just happen to be gay'"), and queer consciousness (GLBTQ characters are shown "in the context of their communities of GLBTQ people and their families of choice (and in recent years, often their families of origin as well)") (p.xx).
Since there are only about 200 gay-themed YA books, Cart and Jenkins chose to discuss all of them, not just those they consider the best, and they don't mince words. Of Alice Childress's Those Other People (1989), they say, "this may be the only novel in which being an out gay is presented as something to be actively deplored. As a result, the novel seems anachronistic; worse, it is replete with one-dimensional characters and some of the most unfortunate homosexual stereotyping in the literature" (p.62). Yet they can also find redeeming value in novels that may not be the best-written, particularly if they portray gays in community. In discussing Who Framed Lorenzo Garcia? (1995) and The Case of the Missing Mother (1995), series titles by R.J. Hamilton, Cart and Jenkins write, "As typical series books, their plots are predictable, their characters are unidimensional, and much of their dialog reads like the transcript of a television police drama, but these titles provide an attractive, if perhaps unrealistic, picture of a community that embraces many differences" (p. 112). And they are very complimentary about special texts, such as Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (1982), "a classic work that tells the exquisitely nuanced story of Annie and Liza, two high school girls who meet and fall in love" (p.75).
There is a chapter each on the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s; each includes a discussion of books from that decade that represent the three categories in the model. That is followed by a year-by-year annotated description of each gay-themed YA novel. Appendix D is a complete chronological record of publication, without the annotations. The chapter on the 2000s notes eight trends in GLBTQ young adult literature spotted in the first half of the current decade: crossover titles (adult to YA, YA to adult), literary fiction (more character-driven, with complex structures and sophistication), new narrative techniques (nontraditional narrative approaches, such as textual collage excerpts from a zine), short story renaissance, poetry renaissance, internationalization (more GLBTQ titles now coming from outside the U.S. than in prior decades), graphic novels/comic books, and historical fiction.
The authors bemoan the lopsided proportion of gay male YA novels that have been published compared to lesbian YA books. Of the seventy GLBTQ young adult novels published in the 1990s, for example, only eighteen (26%) had lesbian content. They do not speculate on why this has been the case. (Perhaps our Feminist Collections readers would care to? Please write us ...) Readers looking specifically for YA novels with lesbian characters may find it easiest to identify them by consulting Appendix C. This is a table, alphabetical by author, that assigns titles to one of Jenkins' three categories, notes gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender content, and indicates whether the GLBTQ narrative role is primary or secondary.
Gay- and lesbian-themed books in school libraries and children's rooms of public libraries are sometimes challenged by parents whose protests are encouraged and supported by the concerted efforts of conservative organizations. Most titles weather the storms and remain in collections, although sometimes access to them is restricted. By contrast, books about women's suffrage are "safe." No one seriously opposes votes for American women anymore. Perhaps collecting books about First Wave feminism provides a way to offer material about women, without engaging in more controversial issues raised by the Second and Third Waves? At any rate, The Suffragists in Literature for Youth documents that women suffrage and its proponents have inspired hundreds of biographies, suffrage-themed monographs, and works of fiction and drama (the title index lists more than 900 mentioned in the book; 50 suffragists receive individual treatment). The authors have a wide definition of "youth," from very young readers in kindergarten through second grade, for whom Martha Rustad wrote Susan B. Anthony (Capstone, 2002), which Mosley and Charles call a "real treasure ... scaled down in size to fit little hands ... [v]ery well done, and a must-read for the youngest child" (p.19), to Ellen Carol Dubois' Harriet Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (Yale University Press, 1997), which they label "Grade 11-Adult." A preponderance of the listings is of books intended or suitable for high school readers. This is especially so in cases where there aren't many books, period, about a person. For example, only one title is listed about Inez Milholland (Boissevain), the lovely figure who sat astride a horse and led the 1913 suffrage march, and it is Linda Lumsden's Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland (Indiana University Press, 2004), Grade 9--Adult. On the other hand, there are fifty-six works included on Susan B. Anthony, and almost half of them are for children. Writers considering penning works on suffrage for school-aged readers could use The Suffragists to identify worthy subjects with minimal or no treatment thus far for their audience. And the fifty featured in the book still only represent a sampling of the thousands of suffragists, say Mosley and Charles: "[W]e hope that this small but mighty group will give teachers, librarians, and researchers a place to begin their adventure into this important part of American history" (Introduction).
Mosley and Charles begin each of the fifty entries with a quotation and a biographical sketch. Then come the annotated book listings, alphabetically by author. There are several men among the biographees: Frederick Douglass, Henry Blackwell, and William Lloyd Garrison. The biographical section constitutes about half the text. Next come sections for suffrage-themed nonfiction, fiction, drama, media (films, DVDs, CDs and audiocassettes of music or the spoken word), and Internet resources. The annotations often point out resources especially good for classroom use. In addition, there are four pages of suggested classroom activities, including one in which students learn of the suffragists who have been featured on postage stamps and then use their talents to design stamps for others. Another section of The Suffragists looks beyond the United States to the suffrage movements in other countries.
Of special interest for teachers and librarians working with young adults is a section of suggestions for YA discussions or papers. These include "What makes people reluctant to share the right to vote? Compare the suffrage movement to the Civil Rights movement and voter registration"; "Many women went to prison while fighting for the right to vote. Discuss whether or not students would be willing to go to jail for their rights. Do an improvisation of the women picketing the White House during Wilson's tenure as president ..."; and "How many women ran for office during the last election at the local level? State? National? How many won?" (pp.272-73). Except for such mention of women in politics, missing from the list of suggestions is comparison to Second Wave feminism in leadership, objectives, tactics, achievements, or remaining issues. Aside from that minor slip in a book that is, after all, more concerned with the historical women's rights movement, The Suffragists in Literature for Youth is an excellent compilation that will be of great use to teachers and librarians.
We encourage librarians, teachers, parents, and young adult readers themselves to consult any or all of these works to learn the state of YA literature today and to select appropriate reading material.
[Phyllis Holman Weisbard is Women's Studies Librarian for the University of Wisconsin System and co-editor of Feminist Collections. Nicole Grapentine-Benton studies Portuguese, Spanish, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she will graduate in December 2007.]
A review essay by Phyllis Holman Weisbard, including a review by Nicole Grapentine-Benton of Declarations of Independence: Empowered Girls in Young Adult Literature, 1990-2001.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Resources on Young Adult Literature. Contributors: Weisbard, Phyllis Holman - Author. Magazine title: Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources. Volume: 28. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2007. Page number: 31+. © 2009 Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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